Should I charge money to review your book?

I’ve been reviewing books in a kind-of-professional context for a decade now. I say kind-of-professional because while book reviewing doesn’t pay a lot, it does usually pay a fair amount. But that payment always comes from the publication, not the publisher or writer.

I’ve developed a fairly high profile as a reviewer, with a regular opinion column for The Guardian that tends to use book reviews as a starting point for discussion of wider issues in geek culture. I was one of the first mainstream reviewers to put time into seriously looking at indie published novels. And when I fall in love with a book, I’ve been known to be pretty insistent that everyone who reads my blog or follows me twitter needs to love that book as well!

All this book reviewing activity means I receive dozens of review requests every week, from both mainstream publishers and indie authors. I like getting sent books (via email only, I’m a nomadic traveller so print books are a big no-no for me) and out of the hundreds I get each year, maybe half a dozen end up featured in my column in one form or another.

I’d like to do more.

Which leads me to the question I’d like your help with. I love to review one or two books a month on this blog, and share them with readers here and on social media. But, I can’t justify the time without at least some financial return. And that financial cost could only be paid (I presume) by the publisher / writer themselves.

So, if I open review slots here which publishers / writers pay for, am I crossing an ethical line? Money moves towards the writer is a diktat I believe in. But with books numerous, and platforms to publicise them limited, have reviews become a commodity that producers should expect to pay for? Maybe more importantly, would readers trust my opinion on a book I’m being paid by the author to review?

I’m open to any and all feedback on this, so please let me know your thoughts.

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SF & Fantasy publishing needs industry awards

UPDATE : Friday 18th March 2016. As the mess that is the Hugo awards remains unchanged a year later, I’m republishing this post to re-iterate the same message. We need a PROFESSIONAL INDUSTRY SF&F award, not a fan driven bun fight. 

The controversy around this year’s Hugo awards continued to roll on through this week. Independent journalist Philip Sandifer added a small tome of research to the material on the issue, although it rather overestimates the importance of Theodore Beale as leader of the neo-fasicist revolution within sci-fi. Beale may be a fascist, but his actual role in this would be better described as attention bum. Beale hangs around the SF & Fantasy writing community, bumming spare attention off anybody he can harass, or who rises to the bait of whatever racist, homophobic bilge the attention bum has posted to his blog that day to score some attention. Poor Phil Sandifer has opened his wallet and given the attention bum his whole months attention salary. I imagine it made the attention bum very happy.

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Read 2015’s best SF&F on Amazon.

There is always some controversy around the Hugo awards, and one of the main causes is that the awards simply don’t fit the expectations that people bring to them. The Hugo awards belong to the World Science Fiction Convention or WorldCon, an American SF & Fantasy convention with a long history that gives the Hugos an immense cachet. The problem is that the SF & Fantasy community tend to treat the Hugos as an industry award, when they are not.

The Eisner’s announced their shortlists today which, low and behold, managed to be interesting, diverse and relevant to the comic book industry they represent. The Eisner’s are in actuallity what the Hugo awards are often assumed to be – an industry award. The main purpose of the Eisner’s is to serve the comic book industry in the ways such awards do, primarily by raising the profile of the industry’s best work and expanding the audience for the medium overall. On a much larger scale, the Oscars have been fulfilling this role for the film industry for decades. So why doesn’t the SF & Fantasy field have a proper industry award?

The main reason is that the Hugos, and alongside them the Nebulas, come very close to being an industry award without quite fulfilling that role. The Hugos could do, and many people seem to be working to get them there, but they won’t achieve that without becoming much more international and overhauling their voting system. The Nebulas are voted for by industry professionals, of a kind, in the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America. But the SFWAs membership does’t actually include the publishing professionals it would need to be an effective “academy” in the style of the Academy Awards.

I don’t know if or how this problem may be fixed. But it does need to be, The lack of a proper industry award leaves the SF & Fantasy writing industry without a centre that it badly needs. The industry’s major awards should be generating media coverage for the quality of their winners, not the intensity of the outrage they cause.

How do you balance complexity and simplicity in your writing?

Do you actually have something to say? Then why are you talking?

Wait up. I’m not telling you to never talk. You’re a human being and have as much right to yell your opinions into the world as anyone else.

But.

This is an interesting post by Deliah S Dawson, a writer I know by name and nothing more. The jist of her argument, as the title Please Shut Up : Why Self Promotion as An Author Doesn’t Work suggets, is that self promotion as an author doesn’t work.

This is both evidently true and untrue. For most people it is true. If we assume, say, 50,000 people who have for various reasons set-up shop as an author, 50 will be lucky to develop any kind of “following”, a word I air quote because I hate it. Twitter has imposed that word on us. Nonetheless, some authors do indeed have a “following”, and many have built that following by self promotion. For them, it definitely did work.

What is the difference between these two groups? To which I say, do you actually have something to say? Then why are you talking? Writing is putting your voice into the world. Everyone who has ever lived has a desire to be heard. It’s a basic function of being human. Now that the tools to be heard in some way – a blog, a twitter account – are free and easy to use, of course everyone is using them.

But if your ONLY reason to speak is to be heard, you have already failed. “How do I build a following and make money selling books?” asks a questioner in Deliah S Dawson’s blog. In doing so, they’re joining the amorphous shuffling hoarde of writers doomed never to be heard. Because they are, in essence, identical. Every word they write boils down to, “please hear me”, because that’s their only intention.

Why do you want these people to follow you? Where are you leading them to? There are a bazillion people shouting their opinions into the world. But if you listen closely, and bring some critical thought to the matter, you’ll quickly see there’s a scarcity of people who actually have something to say. And by something, I mean something coherent, original, and most importantly, intelligent. And because the intelligent voices are scarce, people follow them. Often in great numbers.

I give my social media clients the same basic advice, which they nearly all ignore until they get bored of failing at this game. Listen. Yes, listen to the vast, chaotic babble of opinions that are the internet. Pick your audience, and listen closely to what they are saying. Read blog comments! If everyone is saying the same thing, there’s no point repeating it. Say something new. If no one can agree, be the person to find the solution. Find the intelligent voices in your audience and learn from them. It takes time, to become interesting. Listen closely, then talk, and you might actually have something to say.

Storytelling vs The Human Condition

There’s an age old conflict in the writing world. High art vs. low art. Popular culture vs. Cultural elites. Bestseller status vs. Critical acclaim. What’s the difference? Why does it matter, if it does matter?

At the heart of one side of that argument is the simple idea of story. When I teach, I ask my students, what is a story? It’s more complicated to answer than it might seem. Popular writers put story at the centre of everything. Story is compelling. Vastly, terrifyingly compelling. Watch people watching a popular soap opera. Whatever story is, it’s addictive. That’s why bestsellers sell. They aren’t just words on a page. They’re an addictive substance and we the reader are jonesing for our next hit.

The high arts of the “literary writer” a toying with something a little different. I don’t really want to give it a name, but because critics use the term so often, let’s call it The Human Condition. Critical acclaim goes to the books that say something truthful about being alive, in a body, as a human animal among other human animals. When literature hits its mark, its effects are powerful. Talk to a reader about the important books in their lives. The tone of awe they’ll tell you with is there for a reason. Those books illuminated and enlightened their life. They were, with no exaggeration, a kind of religious experience.

Storytelling vs. The Human Condition. Can’t the two co-exist? Of course. But it’s worth considering why they’re partnership is always an uneasy thing.

A story is never true. Even when it’s based on real events, it is at best a partial half truth, seen through the eyes of its teller. All narrators are unreliable, whether they know it or not. To get to the truth, we need to look beyond the story we’re being told. That’s why writing that shoots for The Human Condition is so concerned with things like subtext, theme, meaning. Flip it over. When we’re hunting the truth, the objective meaning of things, we’re not in the subjective experience. Story means being inside the skin of experience, seeing through the eyes of a character, smelling the stink of things, tasting the sweat of fear on our lips as we enter battle. Story is about sensation, action, events. The poles of Storyteling & The Human condition are hard to balance and hard, there, is an incredible understatement.

But seeing that the task is hard means you’ve turned the problem into an opportunity. This is the basic game the writer is faced with, how to, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, craft a story that hits the reader right between the eyes with both the addictive qualities of story, and the proto-religious experience of The Human Condition. Make a list of novels that utterly floored you. The ones you spent moths or years or a whole life in love with. I guarantee every book on that list is both a masterpiece of Storytelling and a insight into The Human Condition. Balance those beauties and your job is done.

So. Get to it.

The only thing you need to do to fix the Hugos

Nothing.

I’ve already noted here that the motives of those people block voting on the Hugo awards have very little to do with those awards, and everything to do with pimping up the organiser’s profile in the eyes of their reactionary, right wing audience.

The Hugo block vote is an act of immense selfishness. But is it actually a problem? We’re annoyed with those involved for creating such disruption, all for the sole purpose of puffing up their egos. But when you actually parse out what the consequences, do they pose an existential threat? The simple answer is no. Here’s why.

Diversity in sci-fi is a genuine issue, and has been for many years. How important you believe that issue to be will largely depend on how important you believe sci-fi is. But even in very recent years if you asked people about diversity in SF, you would get a few very predictable responses.

Less than two years ago,  sci-fi imprint Tor UK published a limited set of data on submissions made to their imprint by women. The data is interesting, but a high school math student could easily explain to you why it has little meaning in statistical terms. Nonetheless, it was widely hailed by the UK sci-fi community and many beyond as proof that diversity in SF was simply a non-issue. Women did not submit SF novels hence women were not shortlisted for awards. End. Of.

Change often hinges on the middle-ground of opinion. And until quite recently the middle ground of opinion regarding diversity in sci-fi  was (a) what? why does this matter? (b) sci-fi is more of a boys thing (c) please stop talking about diversity your attempt to be heard is really annoying me. A growing number of people were starting to take the issue seriously, but still a very small minority.

Enter the Sad Puppies, stage far right. Who in 2015, after three years of trying, have finally made themselves well and truly known to pretty much all of sci-fi fandom. But their first effect was in 2014, when they first placed a handful of nominees on the Hugo award shortlist. That achievement galvanised Hugo voters to think very seriously about diversity, and return the most diverse roster of Hugo winners in the award’s history.

Because this is what happens when extremists enter a discussion.  They alienate the middle-ground, and it’s the middle-gound where the real power lies. 18 months ago the middle-ground were not behind the idea of diversity in SF, because they simply couldn’t see that it mattered. Today the whole of SF fandom is up in arms about diversity. Because when something comes under such sustained attack, you can no longer pretend it does not matter. So stunning has the anger been in support of diversity, that the Sad Puppies themselves have been backed into the rhetorical corner of claiming their slate is itself a blow for diversity – albeit on behalf of “underrepresented” old white dudes. Hurrah! Total and utter victory for diversity!

SUGGESTION – if the Sad Puppies slate really is about diversity, maybe next year it can be organised by a more diverse group of people? I suggest the current organisers hand Sad Puppies over to K Tempest Bradford and Hal Duncan to prove its true diversity.

The Hugo awards do not need to be fixed. They are doing what awards are, in part, there to do. Providing an arena for the debates that in turn power change. Some rather loud, selfish men are shouting their half of the debate. Good. The mass of people who might otherwise have stood silent on the sidelines have been motivated to act against them. Let the Puppies shout and bellow as long and as loud as they like. The actual changes that will follow their actions are not likely to please them at all. Publishers aren’t racing out to buy more books with space rockets by right wing reactionaries. Quite the opposite. Readers aren’t being persuaded of the joys of old school sci-fi by having it rudely thrust in their faces. Quite the opposite. In contrast, the issue of diversity has this year been spot welded to the Hugo awards by the laser beams of focused outrage. And that’s no bad thing.

What do the Moribund Mammals actually want? It’s not what you think

I imagine it is a buzz being Brad Torgersen at the moment. In a short space of time he has gone from being one among thousands of vaguely successful sci-fi writers – some stories in a few magazines, an award nomination for something or other – to the notorious leader of Sad Puppies 3 : Bigots Destroy Sci-Fi. Now when Brad hits publish on a blog post, hundreds of people comment. He’s a star! But a star without a base soon falls to Earth.

Brad’s new notoriety is on loan from Messrs Correia and Beale. I have no doubt that Brad genuinely cares about sci-fi, for all of the reasons he has stated. It’s not uncommon to see writers do stupid things they will later regret as they get their first taste of public attention. Brad is a spectacular example, and like most others, will soon be forgotten as both sci-fi fandom and the SP mob move on to the next drama.

Correia and Beale, in contrast, do not care about sci-fi. They might give it a second thought, between bouts of stroking their huge ambitions, but it’s in no way their priority. Neither do they care about the Hugo awards, towards which they direct so much hate. Most importantly, Correia and Beale do not care about the faux battle between Conservatives & Liberals about which they scream so loudly, or more accurately they care only as far as it serves their goals.

Both Correia and Beale are focused on goals that lie far beyond sci-fi fandom. Both appeal, and have significant platforms, among reactionary right wing conservatives, a massive “community” that vastly eclipses the niche fandom for sci-fi books. To Correia and to Beale their battle with sci-fi is merely the latest in a long line of faux, one sided conflicts they have engineered in order to build their following in the wider world. Neither man cares at all about the outcome of this conflict, because every outcome has the same payoff, a much inflated reputation for beating up Libruls amongst an audience who enjoy that sport.

It’s because the science fiction community largely misunderstand the true motives behind the Sad Puppy campaign that it’s having such a hard time responding to it. It doesn’t matter how long and how hard you shout “BIGOT” at them, it will only ever make Correia and Beale more popular among their base. If you block their wins with No Award at the Hugos, they simply point out to their base how badly the reactionary right wingers are being discriminated against. Change the rules of the Hugos even a jot and you get the same result with knobs on “HUGOS GERRYMANDERED AGAINST CONSERVATIVE WRITERS”. Let them win and you have, of course, let them win. Establish an opposing slate and, hurrah, you have now engineered an endless battlefield that Correia and Beale can continue to loot for years to come.

But if you think clearly about Correia and Beale’s actual motivations – to gain attention and status from their right wing reactionary base – you can begin to see some effective solutions to the current problems. What those solutions are I will write about tomorrow.